Rising to the Surface

For better or worse I tend to be an early adopter of technology – especially when it comes from Microsoft. I tend to use the latest version of Visual Studio even if I have to use an Express release for a while. I still have an original Xbox sitting in a closet. I had an original Xbox 360 red ring on me. I’ve even been using Windows Phone since it was released. You can imagine my excitement leading up to this week’s release – the Microsoft Surface.

I placed my order for the 32 GB version within hours of the presale opening to ensure that I’d receive the device on the 26th. I lost track of the number of times I checked my order status the last few days but watching twitter made me nervous.

I saw stories where people who placed an order in the first hour were later told that it wouldn’t arrive for two weeks. I ultimately called customer service to see if mine was still on schedule and they assured me that it was. It wasn’t until a friend showed me how I could track the order on FedEx with the order number when I found that the package was en route from Memphis to Indianapolis and had a scheduled delivery time of 10:30 AM on the 26th that my mind was finally put at ease.

I also couldn’t let a little thing like pre-ordering stop me from checking out the opening of the Surface kiosk at the Fashion Mall at Keystone at the Crossing. Even my daughter was getting in on the action when my family was at the mall the day before. When my friend and I arrived at the mall in the morning we pushed our way through the short line of Apple devotees waiting for the Apple Store to open and made our way to the kiosk where we witnessed something beautiful… a line… for a Microsoft product!

While I was comparing the touch and type keyboards at the kiosk my wife called to tell me that FedEx had just made its delivery. Here I am nearly 14 hours later writing this blog post in Word 2013 on my Surface using the touch keyboard!

After using this device off and on for several hours (I had to get SOME work done today AND share it with my wife) I wanted to share some of my initial thoughts. I’m not going to give a rundown of features or anything like that since those have been written about ad nauseam on other sites (and don’t think I haven’t read most of them over the past week). Instead I’d rather use this space to talk about a few of the things I really like and a few of the things I’ve struggled with a bit. I’ve hardly scratched the surface (sorry) of this device so this will be far from exhaustive but and will just highlight a few things.

So, for me Surface, it’s not just a tablet, but it’s actually the best tablet that I’ve ever used. It’s also not just a laptop, but it’s the best laptop I’ve ever used, as well.

Steven Sinofsky, President, Windows Division

The Keyboard

As everyone familiar with the Surface knows, the keyboard is probably one of the biggest and most in your face things separating the device from its competition. As I mentioned earlier I actually tried out both keyboard styles at the kiosk. I saw several reviews raising concerns about the usability of the touch version so I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison.

The first one I tried was the touch. My first experience with it left me thinking it was a bit clumsy. I was struggling with it quite a bit. I definitely found the type version to be more responsive. Now that I’ve been using the touch version for a while though I’m pleased to say that it’s a decent (not quite great) keyboard. I’m still pretty convinced that the typing issues I’m experiencing at this point are a matter of adjusting to the form factor of the keyboard rather than actual problems with the keyboard.

As for responsiveness I’ve found the touch keyboard has no issues keeping up with me. By no means am I the fastest typist in the world but I think I move along at a pretty decent pace. So far I’ve experienced none of the lag issues that some reviewers described. The touch isn’t without its issues though.

First, the keyboard tends to attract smudges. This is of course a purely cosmetic complaint but seeing white smudges on the black matte finish really detracts from the overall appearance of the device.

On a more serious note though I’ve found that the device doesn’t always turn the keyboard back on when resuming from sleep or flipping the keyboard back into keyboard position. This is easily resolved by detaching and reattaching it but it’s an annoyance that shouldn’t happen.

Finally, I’m not a fan of the built-in touch pad. I’ve adjusted the pointer speed and that’s helped a bit but in general I think the touch pad itself is a little too small and the “buttons” being positioned at the very edge of the cover makes them a hard target for my thumbs to hit. Luckily this generally isn’t a problem due to the touch screen but as I’ll discuss in a little while, it doesn’t help everywhere.

Windows RT

I’ll readily admit that I’ve had my reservations about Windows RT. After my first day of using it though I’m truly surprised. The Windows 8 experience on a touch device is a thing of beauty. I was also really surprised about some of the apps/utilities that were installed. The one that surprised me the most was PowerShell. Yes, PowerShell is present on the RT device as is the traditional command prompt.

A few more of my favorites are here too. For instance, I just used the native remote desktop client to connect to my PC in the next room. I was really happy to see that the trusty snipping tool found its way into RT as well.

Multitasking on the surface is an amazing experience. As I’m writing this I have Xbox Music docked on the left side of the screen with Word taking up the right ~2/3 of the display. Switching out docked apps through swiping from the left edge just feels natural.

Of course, Windows RT has some well publicized potential shortcomings such as the lack of support for traditional Windows applications but so far I’m not finding this to be as much of a concern as I’d imagined. I saw several reviews where the reviewer was upset that the Live Essentials suite wasn’t available on Windows RT. I find this to be a non-issue because most of the functionality from that suite is available through other apps like Mail, Messaging, SkyDrive, and Word.

Not that this affects me a whole lot but I know a few people that it does, it’s important to note that there’s no Flash support in Windows RT so if you’re someone that plays a lot of Facebook games you’re rolling the dice as to whether or not they’ll actually work. Out of curiosity I tried a few games and found that Bejeweled Blitz ran (albeit slowly at first), many others did not.

One area of annoyance for me is despite how touch optimized much of the operating system is there are plenty of areas that almost require a mouse. These aren’t isolated to the deep, dark recesses of the system either. I’m talking about places like the tabs in the otherwise awesome task manager. I find things like that scattered throughout the system and it can be irritating if you need that functionality.

Office

Windows RT devices have a “touch enhanced” version Office 2013 Home and Student edition installed and to me this is another huge selling point. I’ve really only spent time in Word so far but if Word is any indication of how the others are then Windows RT owners are in for a treat.

So far the only real problem I have with the Office apps is that like Windows, there are a lot of places that really need the mouse.

Expansion Ports

Surface includes a few built-in expansion ports including a Micro SD reader, video-out, and a standard USB port. I haven’t tried any of them yet but I’m most interested in the video-out port. Unfortunately, but due to size considerations it uses a proprietary connector (ugh) but Apple fans can rest assured that I’ll at least cut back on teasing their constant “I NEED A DONGLE! DO YOU HAVE A DONGLE? DOES ANYBODY HAVE A DONGLE?” calls.

Battery Life & Charging

My wife and I have been using the Surface almost non-stop since I got home from work. After about four hours we had only used about half the battery so I’m going to call it acceptable but your mileage may vary.

When it comes to charging the connector is a little awkward but Microsoft really isn’t kidding when they say they want it to charge quickly. After unboxing the device I plugged in and in a little around an hour my charge had risen from 60% to 100%.

Final Thoughts

Though the Surface it still a little rough around the edges in a few places I really feel like this device is one of the few devices that has lived up to the hype in recent years. The Windows Store may not have the selection of its competitors at this time but I suspect that will change, particularly as the power of the unified Microsoft ecosystem is realized. I’m really excited to see how this platform evolves.

I’ve said this about Windows Phone and I’ll say it again about Surface, Windows 8, and Windows RT. After using them for even a little while everything else starts to feel antiquated.

The game has changed.

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4 comments

  1. Dave, I too pre-ordered on the first day — a 32GB and type cover — after which my credit card company notified me there was a problem with the security code. Turns out the actual code had worn off and the numbers that were still visiible were not it. No indication from Microsoft that there was an issue, however. I thought about calling but didn’t Thursday that they sent an email saying the Surface had shipped. It arrived around 10 am on Friday. Unlike yours it was shipped from CEVA Logistics in Carlise, PA. Depending on the timing and the cover, maybe either Carlisle or Memphis ran out of product between the times we placed orders.

    I am surprised at how full the implementation of the desktop enviroment is. Notepad is there, and runs. Write is there, and doesn’t run. The USB dongle for my wireless Logitech mouse works. The option to “Uninstall or change a program” is there, although it shows nothing installed, not even Office. Makes me wonder what more Microsoft might do with RT down the road.

    Windows 8 may lack in the number of apps (although when it comes to fart apps, the store has enough, include Fart Soundboad [Pro version $1.49]). But it does things my iPad 2 frustratingly won’t, like show me a file system and let me load a file from another directory. Word and Excel are a big deal, and much more usable than the versions on a Windows 7 phone. OneNote runs on my iPad, and in place of PowerPoint the iPad’s Keynote software is decent. Held side by side, screen brightness is about the same. The Surface is slightly heavier (but I didn’t know this until I held them both at the same time) and the Surface’s screen is wider and shorter. The Surface see more wireless hotspots. Killing an app is easier on Surface (I’m old school, can’t let anything linger in memory).

    The only issue so far is getting the Surface to join the Homegroup on my home network, probably because I initially had everything set up for public networks, so I’m going to explore that more today. It has to join a homegroup so I can sideload my apps for testing.

    1. According to the FedEx log, the point of origin for mine was actually the manufacturing facility China via Anchorage then Memphis. It’s surprising that yours came from a distribution facility in PA but at least you got it :) Microsoft’s lack of communication during this preorder event was a disaster overall from what I can tell.

      I actually did get a shipping notification but it wasn’t until about 2:30 AM on Friday – 8 hours before it arrived. I also have to give some credit to the customer service rep I spoke with in that she called me back on Thursday night to actually tell me my tracking number. I was pretty impressed by that.

      I agree about the WiFi antenna picking up more hotspots. At my office yesterday the Surface picked up 11 hotspots while my friend’s iPhone only saw three or four. I think part of that disparity is due to our positions within our building but it certainly doesn’t account for all of it because our desks are in the same room.

      I had no trouble joining my homegroup at all. I just entered the password and I’ve been able to read and write to some of the file shares on my desktop PC (soon to be upgraded to Windows 8).

      1. My homegroup issue turned out to be in a Netgear router, a known issue if you search for it. The other computer was wired, and when I switched it to wireless. homegroup set up worked. I was able to sideload an app once I figured out that I needed to install Remote Debugger from donwload.microsoft.com on the Surface, copied from the other computer’s Downloads folder.

        It is interesting that the package was shipped UPS Next Day Air. I surmise that they wanted to control the arrival date, so that none arrived early and none arrived late.

        If you missed the Surface webcast Friday, Panos Panay, the general manager of the Microsoft Surface, told a story to brag about Wi-Fi reception. By the pool on the roof his hotel he was told to move to a different spot if he wanted Wi-Fi, but the Surface showed four bars where he was sitting. It has two antennas under the plastic panel along the top.

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